From Academic Kids

Modesty describes a set of culturally determined values that relate to the presentation of the self to others.

One meaning is playing down or not mentioning one's own accomplishments, sometimes to the point of "false modesty", a form of boasting through excessive self-denigration. See humility.

The other meaning, also called body modesty, is closely related to shame: it is the wish or requirement not to expose too much of the human body; this applies to the bare skin, but also to hair and to the display of undergarment, and especially to the intimate parts; it does not only involve covering body parts, but also obscuring their shape. It is accomplished by suitable clothing, special ways of changing clothes (see beach), closing or locking the door when changing or taking a shower, etc.; it varies according to who could see it, with categories such as

  • spouse, partner,
  • friend or family of the same sex,
  • strangers of the same sex,
  • friends or family including those of the opposite sex,
  • people of the same social class,
  • people in general.


Body modesty is controversial. An alternative term, especially used by critics, is body shame. Modesty is sometimes said by its critics to be a form of prudishness. Proponents of Body Modesty see it as respect for their bodies and the feelings of themselves and others. Body modesty is conditioned by culture, and also by occasion and who is present; for example, a Finnish person who might happily take all one's clothes off in a mixed sauna would not want to walk down the street naked. Similarly, someone who might wear a bikini to the beach would not wear it to a business meeting.

Western norms of body modesty

Western culture in general requires the intimate parts of the body to be covered in public places at all times. Exceptions are made for situations such as public changing rooms, which tend to be single-sex venues.

Traditionally, there is an expectation that shoes, shirt and trousers or dress etc. be worn in public places. In particular, it is generally unacceptable to be barefoot or shirtless in most public spaces, except places designated for bathing or in the vicinity of these places (such as beaches, and on deck near a pool). However, it is common for formal spaces like restaurants, etc., to overlook a beach or pool, in which case the boundary of modesty is spatial, but not visually segregated. For example, at a poolside or beachside outdoor patio restaurant, there is usually a railing. On one side of the railing, barefoot and shirtless people can converse with those dining on the other side, and may even be part of the same group. More recently, multi-use spaces such as urban beaches are beginning to emerge, washing away even the above mentioned boundaries between more and less modest space. Thus it is now, in many places, acceptable to sunbathe in beachwear next to waterplay fountains located in the heart of a city or business district.

In private homes, the rules are somewhat different. For instance, nudity among immediate family who cohabitants of the home is usually permitted, especially in the bedroom and bathroom. Elsewhere in the home, particularly when visitors are present, some simple casual clothing is expected like a bathrobe which can be quickly donned when full clothing is not required.

Wearing less than the Western norm

Other cultures, such as some African cultures and traditional Australian aboriginal culture have far less requirement for body modesty, though how much exposure is acceptable varies greatly, from nothing for some women, to everything except the glans penis for men of some tribes (see foreskin).

In the West, the subculture of nudism regards complete nudity as acceptable within the nudist community.

Wearing more than the Western norm

Many religious and cultural traditions have greater restrictions. Islam, and the Amish culture, for example, require "modest dress" to be worn by both sexes. Many Muslim women wear the Islamic headscarf or hijab as a way of expressing modesty.

In some Islamic sub-cultures, this is taken to extremes, in particular in some Islamic countries where some women wear the burka, an all-encompassing garment intended to conceal every part of the body, including the eyes.

In most Islamic countries, such expressions of modesty are voluntary. In others, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban, they were enforced under pain of death.

Orthodox Judaism and Sikhism both require men to wear a head covering, in the form of a yarmulke or turban respectively. Orthodox Judaism expects married women to cover their hair; this is achieved by scarves, hats, or—in many communities—wigs ("sheitel"). The Jewish "dress code" is referred to as Tzeniut.

Modest versions of nudity

Missing image
Cupidon (French for Cupid), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1875; the tip of the right wing "happens to cover" the boy's penis

In art, ways of reducing the depiction of nudity include:

  • fig leaves
  • a piece of cloth (or something else) seemingly by chance covering the genitals
  • in a movie, filming a supposedly nude person from the waist up (or from the shoulders up, for women)
  • in a movie, manoeuvering (turning, having objects in front) and film editing in such a way that no genitals are seen

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